×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Inventing the Movies

Scott Kirsner, a Variety contributor, has written a tome chronicling how Hollywood has battled every major technological innovation that has come along. Naysayers didn't believed sound, and color film would take off and to this day are dickering over who will pay for 3-D theater conversions.

Scott Kirsner, a Variety contributor, has written a tome chronicling how Hollywood has battled every major technological innovation that has come along. Naysayers didn’t believed sound, and color film would take off and to this day are dickering over who will pay for 3-D theater conversions. Some innovations, like Paramount’s early 1950s video-on-demand venture, were simply too far ahead of their time but others, Kirsner writes, are best seen “through the rear-view mirror, as either examples of brilliant showmanship or mounting desperation.” In the excerpt below Kirsner writes about Disney’s resistance to computer animation.

Pixar co-founder Edwin Catmull remembered talking to people at Disney’s animation group about the potential of computer animation, including Frank Thomas, part of Walt’s original cohort of animators. (Thomas had been responsible for many famous Disney scenes, such as the moment in “Bambi” when Bambi and Thumper slide playfully on the ice.)

“Frank Thomas was intrigued, but the animators didn’t know what it meant,” said Catmull. “Our color images were fairly crude, and they definitely weren’t up to the standards there.” Computer animation’s boosters understood that the software was always improving, and their computers were getting faster every year, but most people, Catmull realized, “didn’t measure the technology against the arc that it was on.” They didn’t understand how fast it was progressing, and so they dismissed it as a science fair project.

“Disney was a place that was kind of frozen in time,” said John Lasseter, a gregarious young animator who started working at the studio in 1979. “When Walt died, the desire to experiment died, too.” Lasseter was one of the few Disney animators intrigued by the possibilities of computer-assisted animation, in part as a result of having seen an early screening of 1982’s “Tron.” “What blew my mind was the potential of having a truly three-dimensional environment that you could control like hand-drawn animation,” he said.

Lasseter wanted to make some experimental short films to see how computers could be used in future Disney projects, but “I kept bumping up against people saying ‘no,'” he recalled. “My reasoning was, we should try this. With ‘Tron,’ for the first time in decades, Disney is really ahead of everybody else in an area. But the work for ‘Tron’ had been done by outside companies, and all of that knowledge was going to be gone. But there was tremendous resistance in the animation leadership.”

The executive who’d been in charge of “Tron,” Tom Wilhite, gave Lasseter the green light to create a snippet of animation based on the Maurice Sendak book “Where the Wild Things Are.” (Wilhite was part of Disney’s live action group, not its animation studio.) It would blend scenery, lighting and shadows produced by a computer with characters drawn by hand.

“I had this vision where we’d show the ‘Wild Things’ test to Ron Miller [the president of Walt Disney Productions, and Walt’s son-in-law], and there would be no way they could say no to ‘Brave Little Toaster,'” the computer-animated short that Lasseter imagined would be his next project.

Instead, Miller asked about the costs of computer animation, and Lasseter told him that they were comparable to producing hand-drawn animation. “‘The only reason to do computer animation is if it makes it cheaper or faster to make animation,'” Lasseter recalls Miller telling him. “Then he stood up and walked out,” Lasseter said. Later that day, Lasseter was fired from the animation group — and immediately rehired by Wilhite, who wanted him to finish up the “Wild Things” test. In 1984, Lasseter moved to northern California and started working for the Lucasfilm Computer Division (Pixar’s predecessor) as an artist. There, he said, “Ed’s dream became my dream, of doing an animated feature film someday.”

From “Inventing the Movies,” 2008.

Click here to read about the perils of predictions

More Reviews

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Three Sisters review

    London Theater Review: 'Three Sisters'

    Ennui has become exhaustion in playwright Cordelia Lynn’s new version of “Three Sisters.” The word recurs and recurs. Everyone on the Prozorov estate is worn out; too “overworked” to do anything but sit around idle. Are they killing time or is time killing them? Either way, a play often framed as a study of boredom [...]

  • Gentleman Jack Suranne Jones

    TV Review: HBO's 'Gentleman Jack'

    “Nature played a challenging trick on me, didn’t she?” Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) first utters this sentence with an arch amusement, but over the course of Sally Wainwright’s new drama “Gentleman Jack,” she repeats the sentiment with pride, exhaustion and defiance. Living in 1832 Halifax as a lesbian with a penchant for sweeping black suits [...]

  • Jade Bird album

    Album Review: Jade Bird’s Self-Titled Debut

    Jade Bird is a 21-year-old London-spawned singer-songwriter with a voice that can shift from soft sweetness to blow-your-hair-back belting in the course of two syllables. It’s a talent uses strategically in her songwriting: Many songs on this, her debut full-length, find their payoff with a sudden blast of vocal volume that evokes slapstick scenes of [...]

  • Lizzo "Cuz I Love You"

    Album Review: Lizzo's 'Cuz I Love You'

    Lizzo — flautist, funky emcee, powerhouse vocalist, Playboy pictorial sensation and the newly minted toast of Coachella — is not wasting a second of her time, or yours, getting to the meat of her bold, brash existence. Take the title track of “Cuz I Love You,” her first major-label album. The opening moments sound as [...]

  • RUDOLF NUREYEV 1961

    Film Review: 'Nureyev'

    It would be absurd to say that Rudolf Nureyev lived, or danced, in anyone’s shadow. He was a man who leapt and twirled and flew onstage, all muscle but light as a feather, with a freedom and force that reconfigured the human spirit. There’s no denying, though, that over the last few decades, and especially [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content